In the next several days, the sports world will crown some national champions. Pro basketball and college baseball will bestow their titles. But another championship is going on in Minnesota. Bicyclists from around the country have gathered in Blaine for the National Track Cycling Championships, which continue through Saturday.
World-class cyclists will compete this weekend at the National Track Cycling Championships, being held at the National Sports Center in Blaine. (Photo courtesy of Roger Sitterly)
IF YOU TRAVEL TO THE NATIONAL SPORTS CENTER IN BLAINE,
you'll probably notice the big hockey rink. And you can't help but notice the dozens of soccer fields. But you might miss the wooden oval structure tucked into one corner of the complex. You'd be missing what many call the finest bicycle track on the continent.
Made with Afzelian hardwood from Cameroon, the sports center's velodrome is 250 meters around. The curves at either end are banked at a 43-degree angle, making the top of the track about as high as a two-story building. It produces a ride so smooth, that some of the competing cyclists requested it as the championship venue. The week began with heats in the individual pursuit. David LaPorte, director of the week-long bicycle festival that includes the track championships, says there are a dozen different types of track races, which helps distinguish the sport from road racing.
"In a road event, you get variety by going to different race courses. A road race can take place anywhere there are streets - you put up some hay bales and barricades and you've got a race course," says LaPorte. "A track race is always on the same course at the same venue. So we get variety in track racing by having different types of races."
"A long road race is sort of like weak coffee, and track racing is a triple espresso. "
- National champion cyclist Michael Tillman
LaPorte says the longest races may last 40 minutes, the shortest sprints 10 seconds. They have names like the snowball, the Madison, the points race, and the match sprint. Some involve teams, some are individual events. The type of race influences the tactics and strategy a rider will use in jockeying for position. Mike Tillman of Santa Monica, Calif., the defending national champion in the individual pursuit, kept warm between races by pedalling his bike on rollers in the velodrome infield.
"I enjoy road cycling, as well. The analogy I would make is that a long road race is sort of like weak coffee, and track racing is a triple espresso. It's just to the point, there's no messing around. The slightest error can cost you a lap, whereas in road racing it's more forgiving," he says.
Tillman says his favorite track event is the Madison, in which a team of two riders races as a sort of tag team.
"One rider's always resting while the other one is going absolutely full speed. When you watch a good Madison, with really good teams, the sheer intensity can't help but rivet anyone," says Tillman.
Many racers say they enjoy the speed and simplicity of the sprint. Brad Cobb of Bartelsville, Okla., took up track cycling three years ago, after a car accident forced the amputation of his left leg. He competed in the Paralympic Games at Sydney last year and is racing in the disabled division at the national championships in Blaine.
Cyclist Brad Cobb, who lost his leg in a car accident three years ago, says cycling is
the closest thing he could find to running. He competed in the Paralympics in Sydney last year. (MPR Photo/William Wilcoxen)
"I was a scholarship track athlete at the University of Kansas. I was a 200-meter and 400-meter runner. Obviously I'm not going to run anymore. I'm amputated all the way to the hip. And quite honestly, cycling is the closest thing I could find to running. Track cycling is so close to what I was doing, anyway, I think that's why I gravitated toward it," Cobb says.
Luke Winger of Ramsey, Minn., says in addition to the thrill of the speed, he also enjoys the challenge of jockeying for position during the mass starts that can involve more than a dozen racers. Winger, 20, has travelled around the country competing in both track and road races. He says he's seen no facility that can match the Twin Cities' velodrome.
"The banking is designed really well, so if you're doing a race and you get upwards of 40 mph, you can virtually take your hands off the handlebars and the bike would go straight. So, instead of steering the corners you're going straight into them," says Winger. "Colorado has a nice track, but you get up to those kinds of speeds and you're trying to hold it down. And they're not nearly as smooth. We're kind of spoiled here - it's nice."
The national track championships conclude on Saturday, but local races are held every Thursday evening during the summer at the National Sports Center velodrome. There are also programs that give recreational riders instruction and a chance to try the track.